Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Running alongside the film's more elegiac sweep is a cut-glass wit." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Terence Davies' filmmaking has always had a lyrical sweep so this biopic of Siegfried Sassoon fits him like pen in hand, ringing with poetic rhythm that forges connections beyond the everyday. This is evident from the opening voice-over - thankfully not something that hangs around long - from Sassoon (played in vibrant youth by Jack Lowden and in bitter old age by Peter Capaldi, the casting leap perhaps the only thing here that doesn't quite gel despite the abilities of both stars). Archival footage of the First World War is scattered through the film like shards of Sassoon's memory, soldiers look out at us from history and from the trenches from which Sassoon's brother never returned.

The poet, too, refused to go back, attempting to become a conscientious objector, challenging the military elite with his "act of wilful defiance of military authority" statement, yet saved from a court-martial by an establishment who didn't want to make a martyr of him and instead sent to a military hospital with shellshock. Davies is a craftsman when it comes to elision and fadeouts, rarely losing the flow when his film moves from one episode to the next, with Sassoon's stay at the Scots hospital one of its most heartfelt. The poet first finds a kindred spirit in Dr Rivers (Ben Daniels, the standout of the film's many excellent supporting players), who reveals in a roundabout way that he, like Sassoon, is gay, and later encounters and falls in love with the young Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). Encouraging his penmanship and his tango, the bond between the two bristles with intensity, this and a swimming pool scene offering the sort of frisson other directors would take whole films to achieve.

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Owen, of course, would join Sassoon's brother in the legions of those who didn't return, while life moves on for Sassoon as part of a London set, who are, more or less, openly gay, including popular composer Ivor Novello (played with astringent attitude by Jeremy Irvine, whose cheek bones are so high, you almost get vertigo just from looking at them) and preening pretty boy Stephen Tenant (Calam Lynch) - nothing quite satisfying Sassoon's restless spirit.

Worlds collide and sacrifices are noted, including that of Sassoon's wife Hester (Gemma Jones) who entered marriage with her eyes wide open, ultimately Sassoon seems not to be seeking redemption from himself but simply from a life that has exacted a lonely toll. Running alongside the film's more elegiac sweep is a cut-glass wit that marks many of these encounters and an uneasy melancholy generated by Sassoon's inability to fully reconcile his own feelings that culminates in his turning from the warm and witty Lowden to the barren-spirited Capaldi. That Davies can't quite marry the two is, certainly, part of the point - that we never know the person we will become - but still Capaldi's Sassoon is defined almost purely by his animosity towards those around him, meaning he doesn't really stand a chance against his younger, vibrant incarnation and the scenes with him towards the end of the film are allowed to suck a little too much life from proceedings. Everything in the earlier years, like Novello's suits, is beautifully tailored and cut together with precision by Alex Mackie as the film reaches its eloquent emotional climax.

Reviewed on: 08 Mar 2022
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Siegfried Sassoon biopic.
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Director: Terence Davies

Writer: Terence Davies

Starring: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Matthew Tennyson, Ben Daniels, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Anton Lesser, Lia Williams, Simon Russell Beale, Kellie Shirley, Suzanne Bertish, Harry Lawtey, Tom Blyth

Year: 2021

Runtime: 137 minutes

Country: UK, US

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